Op-Ed: Will Hamas Take Over the PLO after Reconciliation?
Hamas' joining of the PLO does not herald a strategic shift in the movement's policy or recognition of the agreements the PLO has signed with Israel. The Hamas leadership keeps emphasizing that it seeks to take over the PLO after new elections to the Palestinian National Council and to alter the PLO platform in accordance with its own views.
Osama Hamdan, in charge of foreign relations for Hamas, asserted in an interview: "Whoever thinks Hamas has changed its positions and that it accepts the PLO's political platform of surrender is dreaming or fooling himself." Hamdan went on to state that "Hamas is seeking a national framework to reconstruct the PLO [and] reconsider its political platform...from the standpoint of our basic principles and rights, which do not accept bargaining, particularly [over] the liberation of our land from the river to the sea and the right of return."
Hamas has reached an agreement with Abbas on adopting the "popular resistance" paradigm for the struggle against Israel. Various political elements view this position of Hamas as a sign of pragmatism, heralding a process of accepting Israel's existence including willingness to negotiate with it on a political settlement. Yet the openly stated positions of the Hamas leadership do not support this assessment.
An official Hamas announcement on 27 December stated: "We underline our adherence to our right to the struggle in all its forms, particularly the armed struggle, for the removal of the occupation. The way of resistance [muqawama in the original, with a double entendre of resistance and struggle], jihad, and martyrdom for Allah [istishhad] has proved that it is the only way to forcefully attain our rights and the liberation of our land, Al-Quds [Jerusalem], and our holy places.
The Fatah-Hamas reconciliation will likely bring about a historic change in the PLO, which for the first time will incorporate Palestinian Islamist organizations. Since Hamas' creation in 1987, the PLO's status as the sole and exclusive representative of the Palestinian people has been eroding. Talks in the 1990s on adding Hamas to the PLO did not go smoothly because of disputes over Hamas' representation on the PNC. During the Second Intifada, the higher coordinating body of the Palestinian organizations - the Islamic National Forces - fulfilled the PLO's role as the decision-making authority in the struggle against Israel, and it held discussions on how to unite all the forces under one roof. But Hamas' victory in the January 2006 parliamentary elections and the subsequent Fatah-Hamas clash produced two Palestinian governments in the West Bank and Gaza respectively, which have fought each other over representing the Palestinians.
Hamas has now agreed to join Fatah while giving up its past preconditions of substantial representation in its institutions. The move reflects the movement's great confidence in its ability under present circumstances to win considerable gains and even a decisive majority in the PNC elections - which amounts to taking over the PLO. This sense of growing clout stems first and foremost from the consequences of the Arab Spring, or more precisely the Islamic Spring, which has swept the Middle East over the past year and empowered the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and other countries. The worldwide Muslim Brotherhood is the parent-movement of Hamas, which serves as its Palestinian branch. For years under Mubarak's regime, Egypt gave backing to the PA. Now, in the wake of the revolution, Egypt is gradually switching its loyalty and stands to become a huge source of strength for Hamas, especially once the Muslim Brotherhood forms the next government there after the election process ends in January.
The uprising in Syria poses problems for Hamas, but only of a temporary nature. The Syrian Muslim Brotherhood is leading the revolt against Assad's regime and is fully backed by Turkey. Although Hamas was supported for years by the regimes of both Hafez and Bashar Assad, even if the government falls, Hamas does not stand to be damaged.
Hamas' pragmatism, as manifested in its willingness to openly accept Abbas' authority as both president of the PA and head of the PLO, in no way indicates a strategic shift in Hamas' policy or acceptance of the PLO's approach - least of all with regard to the interim agreements with Israel and their origin in the letter of mutual recognition signed by Israel and Arafat in September 1993.
Entering the PLO institutions through the front door, Hamas is implementing a Trojan-horse strategy to conquer the supreme source of Palestinian authority from within, international recognition and all. Hamas sees this as the shortest and most effective path to reaping the profits of the Islamic Spring, which is boosting antagonism toward Israel among Middle Eastern regimes and peoples, and would make it very difficult for the PA to negotiate with Israel absent broad domestic and Arab support.
For Hamas, the central lesson from the Arab Spring is the U.S. administration's and the European Union's abandonment of the pro-Western regimes and their readiness, even haste, to support the popular revolutions and recognize the Muslim Brotherhood as a legitimate political actor. To Hamas this indicates that the West is weak and can do nothing but accept the reality that the rebelling peoples dictate, and that the more this process accelerates and is translated into political and military power, the greater its weight in shaping the Middle Eastern and international arenas.
Hamas has despaired of winning Western recognition based on its electoral victory as the leading party or for the government it has established in Gaza; instead it seeks to attain the great prize by taking over the PLO. Hence it is prepared for temporary tactical flexibility, thereby obligating Abbas to implement the reform of the PLO and hold general parliamentary and presidential elections in the West Bank and Gaza. Hamas believes that it is highly likely to prevail in these elections, and that once it has a majority in the PA and PLO institutions, it will be internationally recognized and replace Fatah in representing the Palestinian people both in Palestine and the diaspora. In the interim stage, through joining the temporary PLO leadership, Hamas has succeeded in subverting Abbas' independence in PLO decision-making and in binding him to decisions that the new leadership will make.
Abbas' considerations are a mirror image of Hamas' assessment of the effects of the Islamic Spring. He has moved toward the radical pole to ensure his political survival and prevent a domestic popular uprising against the PA. His cooperation with Hamas is meant to prove his loyalty to the bedrock national principles (Mubarak was charged with lacking such loyalty) and to provide him with a (temporary) insurance policy.
That, it appears, is what motivates Abbas to pose preconditions for negotiations with Israel that he knows are completely unacceptable to its government, and to prepare in advance for the failure of the negotiation channel while trying to cast the full blame on Israel. In parallel, he is devising an alternative to the political process by adopting a strategy of confrontation with Israel both politically and on the ground, one that will turn the Palestinian energies built up during the Arab and Islamic Spring in Israel's direction.
While Abbas speaks seemingly innocently of "peaceful popular resistance," in the PA's terminology the phrase means protest activity that includes attempts to injure and kill Israeli soldiers and civilians. The reception as national heroes of Palestinian terrorists freed in exchange for kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, and Abbas' publicized meetings - despite Israeli protests - with prominent Palestinian terrorists, some of whom have been appointed to senior positions in the PA, again attest to the PA's view of terror as legitimate and praiseworthy.
As in the Second Intifada, the PA is assigning the main role in the conflict with Israel to Fatah, which will serve as its subcontractor for the confrontations in tandem with the other Palestinian organizations. Fatah, which is preparing for the general elections in May, can capitalize on this revived organizational activity to lead the wide-scale strategy of conflict that Abbas has charted. Past experience indicates that violent clashes of the "popular resistance" kind can potentially escalate to a serious deterioration in security.
Traditionally, the main factor in the PLO's formulation of political strategy has been the regional balance of power. Analysis of that balance led to decisions to resort to political dialogue with Israel. The change in the regional balance of power to Israel's detriment amid the revolutions of the Arab and Islamic Spring alters the PLO's and the PA's assessments, and is another factor encouraging a tougher, uncompromising political line and the strategy of confrontation, spiced with a new language about renouncing recognition of Israel and a two-state solution to the conflict.
From Israel's standpoint the trends in the Middle East and in the Palestinian arena are ominous. The PA is forging a strategic alliance with radical Islamic elements, while at the same time the West recognizes their patron - the Muslim Brotherhood - and pursues a policy that in the Middle East appears as weakness. The move by Abbas ensures his regime's stability for a short time, but will likely emerge as cutting off the branch he sits on and building a bridgehead to Hamas' full takeover of the PA and the PLO institutions. That scenario would severely challenge Israel in the Palestinian arena and carry a potential for regional escalation.
Jordan, for its part, is closely following the Palestinian developments. Fatah and Hamas have agreed to exclude the Jordanian arena from the electoral process for the PNC. If the Palestinians in Jordan, who constitute a large majority of its population, vote for Palestinian national institutions, tensions with Jordan are the likely result, reopening the historical wounds in Jordanian-Palestinian relations and raising the question of the legitimacy of the Hashemite Royal House. Like Israel, Jordan faces an existential "Palestinian problem" that would emerge in its full severity after the birth of the Palestinian state, forcing the Palestinians in Jordan to decide the question of their loyalty.
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